Reading the Fridge Classics: Aubergine
Updated: Jun 7
One vegetable, multiple names and connotations – the most risqué of which can be credited to smartphones. Yes, to anyone fluent in emoji, aubergines are of course synonymous with penises (spare a thought for bananas, former kingpin of phallic foods.) The visual metaphor is so widely used that the #eggplant hashtag has been blacklisted by Instagram’s fun police.
Perhaps the aubergine’s ascent to global phallic symbol reflects its culinary universality. A relatively recent addition to British larders, it first found its way into 1970s kitchens on the coattails of newly adopted Mediterranean dishes such as ratatouille and moussaka. (It's about as meaty as vegetables get, hence its now-ubiquitous presence on vegetarian menus.) However, it's a longstanding mainstay of many countries' cuisines. Indigenous to Asia, it was brought to Europe and Africa around 1400 AD by Arab traders (although the Ancient Romans believed it to be poisonous and named it ‘mala insana’, from which the Italia ‘melanzane’ is derived).
Its popularity was seemingly unchecked by the divergence of American and British English. Being British, my loyalty lies with the Gallic elegance of ‘aubergine’ in favour of the workmanlike ‘eggplant’ (surely an unappetising word if you dissect it?). Given today's global eating habits, I imagine many are also conversant with ‘melanzane’ – a word made famous by the Italian speciality whose fans include Inspector Montalbano. In The Age of Doubt, Andrea Camilleri's Sicilian detective (who knows a good meal when he sees one) goes to his customary trattoria for lunch, only to be told that they're out of fish. Thankfully he won't starve, for instead he's offered:
'"An antipasto of caponata made by my wife, a first course of pasta alla norma or with broccoli, and then, as a second course, an aubergine parmigiana that’ll have you licking your fingers." He was right. But instead of licking his fingers or his moustache, the inspector decided to order a second helping of aubergine.'
A key player in Middle Eastern, Turkish and Greek cooking, aubergine crops up regularly in the literature of these regions. Hoda Barakat’s Beirut-set novel The Tiller of Waters features stuffed zucchini and eggplant, while baked aubergine gets a mention in Orhan Pamuk’s Silent House, a tale of siblings visiting their grandmother in a village outside Istanbul. Miral Al-Tahawy’s Blue Aubergine is a female bildungsroman set against the backdrop of Egypt’s social and political turmoil towards the end of the 20th century.
In Elif Shafak’s novel The Bastard of Istanbul, aubergine represents the intimidating otherness of 'international food’: ‘She stole a nervous glance at the jars of eggplant dips and cans of salted grape leaves…No more weird ethnic food! From now on she would cook whatever she wanted … She would cook real Kentucky dishes for her daughter!’
Meanwhile in The Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story collection exploring the assimilation of Indian immigrants in the US, an Indian woman is hired to babysit an American boy. Eliot enjoys watching Mrs Sen cook – her mastery over the unfamiliar herbs and spices. ‘Without having to be told Eliot took his place on the sofa and watched as she sliced the stems off the eggplant. She divided it into long, slender strips, then into small squares, smaller and smaller, as small as sugar cubes. "I am going to put these in a very tasty stew with fish and green bananas,’ she announced. ‘Only I will have to do without the green bananas." They are en route to collect some fresh halibut for the dish when she has a minor accident which results in the termination of her employment.
In Margaret Atwood’s story collection Dancing Girls, a woman's exasperated statement of love is met with a face ‘as inscrutable as an eggplant’. It’s true that there’s something intrinsically mysterious about an aubergine: that tight, inky skin concealing its secret foamy interior, reflecting us back at ourselves. Shape-shifting and versatile, by turns suggestive, exotic, comforting or threatening, it is all things to all people.
My favourite ways with aubergine:
Melanzane alla Parmigiana: Southern Italy's classic, made with passata, mozzarella, garlic, basil and parmesan (middle image)
Baba ganoush: a Levantine dip of pureed aubergine with tahini, lemon, garlic and olive oil (bottom image)
Berenjenas con Miel: a classic Andalusian tapa of deep-fried aubergine drizzled with molasses or honey
Moussaka: the rich Greek dish, composed of layered aubergine, potato, spiced lamb and béchamel
Aubergine Salad: roasted aubergine dressed with tahini, yoghurt, garlic and lemon; scattered with pomegranate seeds, spring onions, pine nuts and parsley (top image)
Caponata: the Sicilian stew of aubergine, courgette, tomato, celery, capers, sultanas and pine nuts, with quintessentially agrodolce (sweet and sour) flavours
Ratatouille: rustic stew of courgettes, aubergines, peppers, onion and garlic, originally invented by Provençal peasant farmers
Involtini: these aubergine parcels containing sun-dried tomato paste, parma ham, mozzarella and basil make delicious canapés
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